GM Bryan Smith: Wesley So’s Capablanca-esque Play – and Near Disaster

In the recently-concluded Gashimov Memorial in Shamkir, Azerbaijan, the newly-crowned U.S. champion, Wesley So, finished tied for second. In the sixth round, he played a fantastic endgame to defeat Sergei Karjakin – extracting pure spring water from what looked like the most barren desert. At the end, however, a moment of carelessness nearly cost him the win. Fortunately for So, however, Karjakin missed his chance. Let’s see the most crucial and instructive moments of this game.

(So,Wesley – Karjakin,Sergey)

2017 Vugar Gashimov Memorial

1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.Nc3 Nc6 4.e3 e6 5.d4 d5 6.a3 a6 7.dxc5 Bxc5 8.b4 Ba7 9.Bb2 0–0 10.h3 h6 11.Rc1 Re8 12.Bd3 dxc4 13.Bxc4 Qxd1+ 14.Rxd1 b5 15.Bd3 Bb7 16.Ke2 Kf8 17.Rhg1 Rad8 18.Bb1 Ne7

Diagram 1: After move 18…Ne7

The game started in a very quiet manner, leading to a typical kind of queenless middlegame that can occur from the Tarrasch. With the pawn structure symmetrical and no obvious advantage in piece placement, it is not easy to see how White can pressure his opponent. But So manages to keep setting Karjakin problems.


The knight looked normally-placed on f3, but in fact it was the first priority for some rerouting. It will now head to b3, where it aims at the c5–square. In this structure, the c5– and c4– squares are key outposts. Who manages to exploit their square will usually gain the advantage.

19…Bb6  20.g4!

Black faces slight problems on both sides of the board. This space-gaining move threatens to potentially advance g4–g5, when a real attack on the black king, with the support of the Bb2 and Rg1 aiming at g7, could become possible.

20…Ned5  21.Nxd5 Nxd5  22.Nb3 f6  23.Bg6 Re7  24.Rc1 Red7  25.Rgd1 Ne7


Karjakin is well-known as a great defender, and he will not go down easily. The general lack of material is his friend – here he forces the exchange of some pieces, and the withdrawal of the Bg6.
26.Rxd7 Rxd7  27.Bb1

Diagram 2: Position After 27.Bb1


Again seeking exchanges, Karjakin plans to hold the slightly worse endgame with only minor pieces. Indeed, the resulting position seems harmless. White’s pieces are more active, but it appears that Black should be able to neutralize them.

Nevertheless, this allows the white knight to occupy c5 and stay there. It would have been objectively better to utilize a different , and somewhat paradoxical idea – force the knight to c5, exchange it for the dark-squared bishop, and then arrange the pawns on the dark squares. 27…Bd5 28.Nc5 Bxc5 29.Rxc5 It might seem that Black has given White concrete advantages – control of the c-file and the two bishops. But after 29…Bc4+ 30.Ke1 e5 It turns out that White’s dark-squared bishop (the one with no opponent) is fairly blunted by the black pawns. The c-file also is of limited use to White. And trying to activate the dark-squared bishop by f2–f4 will not be easy, since it creates some weaknesses – …Nd5 could then come, and the black pieces are very active. Don’t overestimate the two bishops!

28.Rxc7 Bxc7  29.Nc5 Bc8  30.Ba2 Nd5  31.f4 Bd6

Black’s game becomes more difficult after this move. When you are defending this kind of ending, every exchange of pawns helps. Therefore, it is surprising that Karjakin did not play 31…a5 which also exchanges off the weakness of a6.  32.bxa5 Bxa5 33.Bd4 White continues to exert some slight pressure, but Black ought to be able to defend successfully.

32.Bd4 Kf7  33.Kd3 Ne7  34.Ne4 Bc7  35.f5!

Black’s position is stretched to the breaking point. The dual weaknesses on a6 and e6 will cost a pawn.

35…Nc6  36.fxe6+ Bxe6  37.Bxe6+ Kxe6  38.Nc5+ Ke7  39.Nxa6 Bd6  40.Bc5 Ne5+  41.Ke4 Nc4  42.Kd5 Bxc5  43.Kxc5 Nxa3

Black regains a pawn, but only temporarily. White’s active pieces will ensure that in the end, White stays a pawn up.

44.Nc7 Kd7  45.Nxb5 Nc2  46.Nd4!

White does not cling to the e3–pawn, but instead exchanges it while improving the position of his pieces.

46…Nxe3  47.Nf5!

The pawn ending after 47…Nxf5 48.gxf5 is obviously hopeless for Black, since his three pawns are held back by two while White has the outside passed pawn.

Diagram 3: Position After 47…Nd1


This move was very surprising, and it looks like So was making it too complicated. After the simple 48.Nxg7 Nf2 49.Nh5 Nxh3 50.Nxf6+ White will win without trouble.

48…g6  49.Nxh6 Ne3?

Black faced the choice of activating the king and sacrificing the knight for the b-pawn, or keeping the king back and pushing the f-pawn with the knight’s support. He chose the latter, which was wrong.

49…Ke6, playing actively with Black’s strongest piece, gave excellent chances to draw. 50.b5 (The best chance is to bring the king back, but it does not lead to a win either: 50.Kc5 f5 51.Kd4 f4 and the situation is very complicated. The white knight is stuck and the passed f-pawn will provide a constant diversion. ) 50…Nc3 51.Kc6 Na4 52.b6 Nxb6 53.Kxb6 f5 Black will advance the king and f-pawn, and with the white king distant will easily force the exchange of White’s last pawn.

50.b5 f5  51.Ka6 fxg4  52.hxg4 Nd5  53.b6 Kc6  54.b7 Nc7+  55.Ka7 Nb5+  56.Ka8 Nc7+  57.Kb8 Nb5  58.Ka8 Nc7+  59.Kb8 Nb5  60.Nf7 Kb6  61.g5 Ka6  62.Nd8 Kb6  63.Kc8 Nd6+  64.Kd7 1–0

In the end, So got his deserved win, but for every true artist it is a disappointment to put a flaw in your work.

Grandmaster Bryan Smith grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, and currently lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Some of his accomplishments include first place in the 2008 National Chess Congress, 2009 National Chess Congress, 2010 Philadelphia International, and 2011 Limpedea Cup. He was a weekly columnist on for several years Bryan is the first-ever Grandmaster from Alaska.


Visit our DVD stores for premium videos



Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.